By Robert Rotenberg
Department of Anthropology, DePaul University
The anthropology department at DePaul University in Chicago began in 1998 and awarded its first BA in 1999. At the time there were just three full-time faculty, all of whom had an urban focus and appreciation/interest in applied practice in urban settings. Because of our late development, we were able to rethink the curriculum of the BA in ways that may have eluded other departments. We decided early on that an applied focus was essential. Our university has a tradition of social action. Our program was approved with the understanding that we would contribute to that tradition. Within the first year, we hired an archaeologist as our fourth member. That colleague clearly understood that archaeology in our department must emphasize a community focus through a local urban field school.
In 2004, we had grown to the point where we needed to increase the number of required courses to better use faculty resources and provide a stronger identity for our students. Three of us, Sharon Nagy, Jane Baxter and myself, developed a model of distributing an applied focus throughout the curriculum. Instead of having a single course in community-based research, say, we would forefront professional skills early in the curriculum, building research projects into as many courses as possible. We felt that an undergraduate curriculum that emphasized skills over reading lists was a better preparation for our students, the vast majority of whom were not going to graduate school. As for those few who did want graduate education, diverse, completed research projects would set their applications apart. We believe that in creating a ‘hands-on’ major, we would attract students who yearned for more active forms of learning. We also believed this approach would suit the needs of student activists and service learners.
The model we devised is structured as follows: research methods in ethnography and archaeology (local, community-based field school), and professional studies, including human subjects research certification are the first courses students take. These are followed by a survey of the culture concept in the 20th century. The middle of the curriculum is filled with a mix of literature-based and research-based courses that emphasize reading, writing and speaking skills across a variety of genres. We also established ties to co-curricular programming that helped students project their learning in internships, service learning programs, student organizations, and study abroad. The final phase of the curriculum included two required applied practice courses in which the instructor organized a single project, often involving a local community organization in the client role, and contracted the ethnography or archaeology out to the students. Finally, our capstone seminar focused on anthropology as life-long learning, enabling the students to reflect both on the experiences in their major and general education curriculum, and on the ways in which their lives as anthropologists might unfold after graduation. As this seminar has evolved, it commonly features visits from practicing anthropologists.
To support this broad model, we created a grid with our desired learning outcome categories as columns and our course offerings as rows. The individual boxes were then filled with the ways the courses fulfilled specific outcomes within the category. Among the learning outcome categories, we list the following: experiential, collaborative, literacy, writing, speaking, research, evaluation, reflection, and professional socialization. A specific course, say ethnographic research methods, would then be described as follows: experiential = yes; collaborative =yes; literacy = methods manual, ethnographic articles, research reports; writing = fieldnotes, field diary, interview transcripts, IMRAD-formatted report, ethnographic-based argument; speaking = informal and formal research presentations, talking with power point slides; research = data gathering and analysis; evaluation = yes; reflection = yes; and professional socialization = implementation of a HSR protocol. Ideally, a new colleague could use the grid to fashion a course that immediately met the requirements for its slot in the curriculum. The grid directed us to recognize the redundancies and gaps in the curriculum. This, in turn, helped us to use our requirements and our faculty in more effective ways. Perhaps most importantly, the grid showed us how to explain to students what they were learning and why these skills, genres, or learning situations were important. Faculty are asked to include a statement in their syllabi explaining how the course fits into the major curriculum.
On the whole this approach has been successful for several reasons. First, we are in a school in which first generation college students represent almost 40% of the student body. These students discover that they can explain anthropology to their parents and community members as a reasonable preparation for their life after college. Indeed, their fellow students may be doing research in their community at that very moment.
Second, our university is resource rich. We had a period of 15 years of extraordinary growth in student enrollments, faculty size and new buildings. Student services include a well-functioning career office with an active and successful internship program. Study Abroad, led by anthropologists, offer a large number of language-based and non-language based programs at cost for our students to sample. We encourage this by making the second year of our language requirement ‘fulfilled’ if a student attends a language-based program for at least ten weeks.
Third, thanks to an endowment from a trustee, our community-based service-learning center (Steans Center), directed by a professional anthropologist, has become an award-winning national model of how this function can be best integrated into university curricula. They maintain all the liaisons with the communities. Our faculty activate their ties when developing a project, but can also feel free to let their personal ties attenuate, knowing that our Steans Center will keep the institutional ties vital and open. Thus, there is very little community ‘burn-out’ from student-based projects. In fact, our partner organizations invite us back to work with them again whenever we express an interest in doing so.
Finally, there is little opposition among the faculty to maintaining this model because each was hired with the understanding that we are this kind of department and have no desire to be a different kind of department. This is not to say there are no differences of opinion about how best to implement our design. That stimulating conversation keeps us all thinking and reflecting on what we do. It led us to liberalize our requirements as our total number of majors grew. Throughout this process, the principles that shaped our initial approach did not change. Departments with a different mix of students, a university with fewer resources, or a faculty hired under a different understanding of the department’s role could find adopting our principles difficult.
We have lived with this curriculum for eight years. Over time, new faculty were hired. We have not been especially diligent in explaining the fine structure of the curriculum as we might have. This has led to misunderstandings and a degree of divergence from the original concept. New courses have been added in archaeology and biological anthropology without checking the learning outcomes against the original grid. Courses that were required of all students in 2004 are now electives in the more liberal requirements of 2012, again, compromising the balance of outcomes we originally achieved. In maximizing the teaching and scholarly quality of our department we have chosen new colleagues who do not readily contribute to the original model. Finally, those colleagues who were tasked with offering the field-based courses have understandably begun to burn-out on the extra effort involved in the courses. This has opened opportunities to bring in adjuncts from the professional community, but has also weakened the consistency of students’ experience with the curriculum. We have become complacent with our original achievement. These experiences of living with the curriculum demonstrate the importance of refreshing the conversation every two years, or so. We are currently engaged in doing just that.
In a recent session on applied programming at the undergraduate level, panel members of whom I was one, were asked to address two questions directly pertinent to undergraduate applied anthropology programs: how does one prepare undergraduates to successfully market their degree, and how does one argue for resources and approval for an applied curriculum beyond the department? We all struggle with the tension between our championing of liberal learning as a rich and multi-purpose activity, and our students’ need to find a viable path toward an independent adulthood. Our university tends to balance the two with a slight tilt towards the students’ perceptions. As a result, our career center is well developed and sophisticated. We address the first question by introducing professionalism, including self-marketing, early in the curriculum. Everyone develops a resume. Everyone can identify a person in the career center they have met in our classroom. Everyone understands how the internship program works. Next, we take the contribution of the co-curriculum seriously. We have met with the internship office, the study abroad office and the community-based service learning center as a department. That conversation resulted in these services having a deeper understanding of the range of skills and knowledge our students were developing. It also empowered our faculty to speak authoritatively and accurately about the co-curriculum with students, encouraging them to invest in these experiences and linking them to the students’ desired outcomes. Finally, we maintain ties to both local practitioner organizations, to understand who is contracting for which research services, and COPAA, to monitor the growth and development of applied graduate programs. Hopefully, those programs are keeping their eyes on the services contracted for nationally. This effort helps the faculty communicate to students what services might be in demand during the first few years of their post-BA career.
As to the question of successfully arguing for resources and approval beyond the department, we have had success with the following argument:
Universities faces serious challenges: the economic stress that results from the growing shortage of traditional-aged students, constrained revenue growth and increasing costs, demands for greater accountability by accrediting agencies, competition from for-profit professional schools and the challenge of continuously enhancing quality. The institutions best positioned to meet these challenges are those that, as the late Ernest Boyer (SUNY Chancellor; President of Carnegie Foundation) suggested, serve not just the private interests of their students and faculty but the public good as well. One serves the public good by staying student centered, by promoting excellence in teaching and scholarship, and by reinforcing rather than retreating from community partnerships and a commitment to diversity and accessibility. This is the contribution of an applied anthropology program to the campus mix.
However, such a formula will not work at every school. What successful arguments have in common, though, is that they link the university’s challenges to the solutions provided by the applied BA program.